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Nanaimo Clippers captain Trevor Fitzgerald, right, carries the puck into the offensive zone during a game this season at Frank Crane Arena.
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Clippers lament missed opportunities

The Nanaimo Clippers found themselves in a lot of close games this season.

They won some one-goal games; they lost some one-goal games. They scored about the same amount of goals as they allowed.

But in the B.C. Hockey League’s new, exclusive playoff format, the math just didn’t add up for the Clippers. They finished 26-25-0-9, and missed the playoffs for the first time in more than 25 years.

“I don’t look at it as being a grand failure, by any stretch,” said Mike Vandekamp, the team’s coach and general manager. “We were a middle-of-the-pack team and middle of the pack isn’t good enough in this league with the current format.”

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. With only four of eight teams in each conference making the post-season, the whole 2011-12 campaign felt like one long playoff chase.

“That probably put more emphasis on every game, every night and that’s maybe not necessarily the best scenario for a team that was going through as much flux and change as we were,” Vandekamp said.

He was new to the coach and GM roles this season and said he didn’t really know how competitive his team would be when the games got going.

“We probably went into the season with more unknowns than a guy’s used to, and we tried to read and react as we went,” he said.

The players were attentive and willing to buy in and work hard, he said.

But all season long, they would win a game, then lose one. Win a few in a row, lose a few in a row. There wasn’t any one slump that ever dropped them out of contention, just a series of missed opportunities.

Looking back at all those close games, the Clippers believe if they could have limited a mistake here, cashed in a scoring chance there, their record might be quite different.

“On more nights than not, we outshot our opponent,” said Vandekamp.

He thinks better defence might have made the biggest difference.

“We could have done ourselves a lot of favours in a lot of close games … if we could have cut back the goals against slightly, cut the mistakes out a little bit, made it harder for other teams to get that goal against us that they were able to get,” he said. “These games are all so tight that it’s probably easier to work as a team to keep the puck out of your net than it is to create offence sometimes.”

Fans might look at the team’s goaltending in 2011-12 and wonder how the Clippers missed the post-season with a No. 1 guy the calibre of Billy Faust. But Vandekamp’s praise of his goalie was more reserved – “steady and solid,” said the coach – and he viewed the goaltending as a whole, suggesting the Clippers didn’t win enough games in front of backup Chris Eiserman.

Ultimately it’s a team sport, and the coach said “your team game can carry you a long, long way.”

At times the players struggled with the discipline necessary to stay within that team structure, he said, but added that’s not abnormal at the junior level.

Trevor Fitzgerald, Clippers captain, said he thinks the team had all the tools to match up against the league’s best. Sometimes the Clippers proved it and won; sometimes they looked overmatched and lost.

“It’s all mental,” said Fitzgerald. “You kind of create your own opponents.”

Clippers look to next season

While other BCHL teams are embroiled in playoff series, next season has already started for the Clippers.

Vandekamp is scouting junior B teams in the Interior this week and will then be travelling to Alberta.

He needs a goalie and he wants “steady Eddie” defencemen and size, strength and scoring up front.

He said he has realistic expectations of the group of returning players, but has challenged them, nevertheless, to make the most of their summer and report to camp as better athletes. They’re keen to do just that.

“If we just put in the time over the summer, work hard and come to camp prepared, then we’ve got the talent, we’ve got the skill and we should have the hard work,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s ours for the taking.”

The Clippers will hold a spring identification camp for prospects May 11-12 at the Nanaimo Ice Centre. For more information, please e-mail mikev@nanaimoclippers.com.

Games heat up in playoffs

The Nanaimo Clippers didn’t make it, but fans know there’s nothing like playoff hockey. The News Bulletin’s sister papers including the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial, the Penticton Western News, the Surrey Leader and others will cover all the thrills and spills of the B.C. Hockey League playoffs.

Click here to access links.

sports@nanaimobulletin.com

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